This week’s blog post of the series ‘Five Things You Might Not Know About Offices‘ will look a bit closer at the activities of people in offices; more specifically, it will focus on movement.
There isn’t really a myth to be dispelled this time, I rather want us to take a fresh look at how we move around in offices and why. A lot of times office workers do not really think about movement. Or if they do, it is rather from a negative perspective: the moans about all the good things being too far away from them (e.g. good coffee, that very useful colleague, the printer, the much needed reference books, etc); or the complaints if a photocopier is broken or the elevator is not working and people have to walk the extra mile. But here’s a thing: movement is good for you. And most interestingly it helps you think.
We know a lot of things about movement in workplace environments from Space Syntax research. We know that movement flows often follow the logic and structure of office layouts (we tend to find more moving people in strategically integrated places and fewer people in segregated places); we also know that this match is not perfect and a great level of variation occurs depending on the detailed layout of an office, workplace cultures and the location of attractors. We know how important it is that everyday routes in the office allow for visibility and lead along the workstations of other people so that processes of ‘recruitment’ can happen, i.e. unplanned encounters. Increasingly, research also investigates the relationship between office design and physical activity, for instance how activity levels can be increased to counteract the negative influences of sedentary behaviours.
An aspect of movement that has not received as much attention is how it links to cognitive abilities, or in short, how movement relates to thinking.
I have first glimpsed this phenomenon in one of my case studies of a research institute hosting theoretical physicists. A major aspect of the working practices of the researchers was to sit in their offices and think. In an open-ended question on their main activities 27% of people answered ‘thinking and understanding things’, which was among the top ten activities of these researchers. For mid-career researchers (post-docs) this was an even more important task (33%) than for early-career researchers as the graph below shows (why it doesn’t feature for senior staff anymore I don’t want to speculate too much on – maybe they don’t need to think anymore? Or has thinking become second nature by then so that it’s not worth mentioning?).
Against this background I observed the behaviours and activities of the physicists, among them the patterns of movement in their workplace. The image below shows the overall flow of movement on the first floor of the institute.
If we zoom into two different areas of the workplace – an individual office and the coffee bar – we can see an interesting behavioural pattern (marked in red): people were moving around with no obvious purpose, tracing back and forth, in and out of the office and along the coffee bar.
What I have observed is people thinking in action. Rather than sitting at their desk (which we could assume is the standard place for people to do their thinking work), these researchers chose to move around while thinking.
The idea that walking enhances thinking is nothing new. Charles Darwin was known for long walks along his so called Sandwalk at Downs House. And long before that, Aristotle famously went for walks with his disciples while teaching, thus founding the ‘peripatetic school‘ (which means walking or meandering in Greek). The positive relationship between walking and cognitive performance has also been proven by psychologists in experimental studies, where it was shown that cognitive performance in memory tasks improved when participants walked in their preferred walking speed on a treadmill as opposed to sitting. Interestingly, the performance improvement was even more pronounced for difficult tasks. Latest research using brain scanning also shows increased brain activity after 20 minutes of walking.
So why are not more people in offices walking up and down the corridors to enhance their thinking as the theoretical physicists did in their workplace? Possibly because a lot of people won’t know about this. Possibly because it feels awkward to meander around a workplace depending on the space people have and the layout of the office (and if you’ve ever witnessed someone doing this, you will know what I am talking about).
Still, movement is good for you. And it helps you think. So get up from your computer when you’re stuck with a problem, have a walk around your office (and get a cup of tea so that it doesn’t look as weird to your colleagues) and enjoy your new insights. And if you happen to be an architect, interior designer or workplace consultant: think about spaces for meandering in your next project.